Respectable: Crossing the Class Divide by Lynsey Hanley

Class is a Communist concept. It groups people as bundles and sets them against one another,”  wrote Margaret Thatcher in 1992. A couple of year later, John Major hailed Britain’s “classless society” and just before the 1997 elections John Prescott announced that “we’re all middle class now”.

Politicians used to pretend that there are no class differences in Britain and therefore the “class gap” received almost no attention at all. But pretending does not mean that class differences don’t exist or that they are no longer important.

Each decade we shiftily declare we have buried class; each decade the coffin stays empty,” wrote thirty years ago the British sociologist Richard Hoggart. In the second decade of the 21st century, class distinctions still pervade almost all aspects of English culture and life.  And continuously, find new ways of expressing themselves.

According to a BBC survey in 2013, the traditional categories of working, middle and upper class are outdated (only 39% of the people in Britain fit in these three categories). They have been replaced by seven social classes which include, in addition to traditional occupation, wealth and education, the economic (income, savings, house ) and cultural (interests and activities) capital.

Class is such a complex concept, after 20 years living and working in the UK, I am still struggling to grasp all the aspects of class divide and social mobility. We have known that social mobility is lower in the UK than elsewhere in Europe and that is failing; the university access gap between rich and poor has actually widened in recent years.

In her book Respectable: Crossing the Class Divide,  Lynsey Hanley describes her upbringing on the Chelmsley Wood council estate in the 1980080s, as well as the experience and the significance of undertaking social mobility in the context of wider social inequality.

Hanley also writes about respectability as a condition within working class communities. Respectability as against rough. She examines the idea of respectability as a way of how individuals are preserving dignity and self-respect and also as a way of getting closer to the values of dominant society.

“Respectability is a property of your specific circumstances: circumstances which permit you, or at least make it easier, to maintain the appearances and felling of self-respect.”

Richard Hoggart, and especially his book in The Uses of Literacy (1957) is a great influence to Lynsey Hanley. Following Hoggard’s detailed description of British urban working-class people in the years spanning the second world war, Lynsey Hanley also sets her book and the story of social mobility in a specific time and place.

“This is an attempt to make, out of a personal story, a sense rather more than the personal.”

_Richard Hoggart

Lynsey Hanley’s book helps to bring class back on the map and the conversation. She also sets a few existential questions about social mobility and describes how the physical walls of council estates sustain what she calls ‘walls in the head’ – the ‘invisible barriers to knowledge, self-awareness and social mobility’. It is a fantastic book.